Sounds of the Loom Return to Myanmar’s Home of Traditional Weaving

By Yuzana 23 March 2023

Residents of Sagaing Region’s Shwebo Township in central Myanmar, the home of Myanmar’s traditional weaving, are hoping that well-wishers at home and abroad come to their rescue after their properties and looms were burned by junta troops over the last month.

Residents in Shwebo, where the famed Seik Kun fabric has long been produced, have lost not only their homes but also their livelihoods that had been handed down through the generations.

Regime troops have torched at least 14 villages in Shwebo in recent weeks. Among them were Htoo Gyi, Telpin, Pa Hlaing, and Tintel villages, homes to both traditional handlooms and mechanized looms used to make Seik Kun fabric. All four are close to Seik Kun village, which produces the woven fabrics and distributes them around the country.

Weaving is the only form of income for 80 percent of these villages – the remaining 20 percent grow rice. The torching of their houses and their looms by the Myanmar military and pro-regime Pyu Saw Htee militia has therefore caused immeasurable loss.

Burnt looms in Htoo Gyi village after regime arson attack in February. (Photo: S&C)

Weavers without looms

Daw Khin San Lwin is one of the many Sagaing villagers to lose everything in a junta raid. The 52-year-old and her family live in Htoo Gyi village where almost every house has a loom. Daw Khin San Lwin, her two daughters and her son were all producing fabric on four handlooms in her house. Her husband is a carpenter.

The value of each Seik Kun piece ranges from 10,000 kyat (US$ 4) to 70,000 kyat (US$ 33) and takes one to three days to weave depending on the method and fabric used.

The family lived comfortably on the income from weaving until her house and four looms were torched by junta forces on February 20. Of Htoo Gyi’s 600-plus households, 250 houses and around 100 looms were torched in the arson attacks.

“Our lives have been ruined,” Daw Khin San Lwin told The Irrawaddy.

Her family is now sheltering in a palm-thatched hut donated by the S&C educational and emergency rescue team, but they depend on residents from other villages for their only daily meal.

The charred remains of a loom in Htoo Gyi after the regime raid in February. (Photo: S&C)

“All the weaving residences went up in flames. I don’t know what to say now that it’s all gone,” said Daw Khin San Lwin, who has been weaving for 30 years.

A total of 250 looms have been destroyed in the four villages. Handlooms are worth 650,000 kyats (US$ 309) kyats while a mechanized loom goes for 2.5 million kyats (US$ 1190). The arson attacks destroyed crops, agricultural equipment, and a total of 1,000 houses worth millions of kyats in the four villages, according to S&C.

“It will be hard to re-establish the loom business because the losses are so high,” Ko Soe Moe Aung, a representative of S&C, told The Irrawaddy.

“When crops are destroyed, at least the farmers can replant and harvest the following year. With looms, there is nothing we can do,” he added.

Ko Kyaw Myint (name changed for security reasons) also lost a loom on which he and his family relied to feed themselves after he and his younger sister participated in Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) strikes following the coup. The 42-year-old is a resident of Pa Hlaing village near Htoo Gyi and was also the victim of a regime arson attack.

Pa Hlaing, which has around 1,000 households, was torched on February 15, with almost 250 houses destroyed including looms and Ko Kyaw Myint’s house.

They had bought a loom to earn a living after the family lost their income when he and his sister joined the CDM movement. The money earned from weaving was sufficient to cover their living expenses as there are only three people in the family.

“Now we have nothing left except our hands,” Ko Kyaw Myint told The Irrawaddy.

A donated handloom in Htoo Gyi village. (Photo: S&C)

Pa Hlaing residents have been forced to flee their homes over the last two years after regime troops deployed to their village in July 2021.

“We can’t even think about returning to our land and living in tents like in the other villages because the soldiers are stationed there,” Ko Kyaw Myint said.

Despite suffering catastrophe at the hands of regime troops, the residents hope to start again with new looms as weaving is both their tradition and their livelihood. S&C is lending them a helping hand by donating simple equipment to the villagers.

Sounds of weaving return

S&C’s aim is to donate handlooms to all those who lost their livelihood to junta attacks. So far, four handlooms have been donated to residents in Htoo Gyi and they aim to donate six more this month.

“Handweaving is a craft and a cultural heritage of Myanmar. We are donating looms to maintain this heritage,” Ko Soe Moe Aung explained.

Weavers who were given looms by S&C started work on March 14, even though their homes are yet to be rebuilt.

“We donated warp thread along with the looms. In that way, they can start work immediately,” Ko Soe Moe Aung told The Irrawaddy.

Hope rising from the ashes

A donated handloom in Htoo Gyi village. (Photo: S&C)

Ko Kyaw Myint said the support at a time of helplessness is heartwarming.

Ma Mi Thet (name changed for security) from Moet Si village is also grateful to those who are donating handlooms to Sagaing residents. The 29-year-old weaver was forced to flee her home six months ago by the regime and Pyu Saw Htee. Moet Si has suffered junta arson attacks on three occasions over the last month. Today, there are just eight houses left standing out of the original 90 households.

“Although we were able to remove one loom before the regime’s arson attack, the other one was lost in the fire. Many people from our village were unable to take their looms out,” Ma Mi Thet told The Irrawaddy.

“The acts of the regime soldiers are inhumane. Our villagers are in trouble as they are unable to get new looms,” Ma Mi Thet said, adding that she hopes more looms are donated to people who have nothing left with which to earn their living.

Daw Khin San Lwin from Htoo Gyi village is also counting on loom donors to help her start her life again. Although she lost everything, she is optimistic that a new start can be made.

“We are not depressed. There will be people to encourage us one day,” she said.